Just Ask. It’s that simple.

Originally written for UNESCO MGIEP’s MakeSpace Theory Book by Mathangi Subramanian


I knowingly met a young person with dyslexia for the first time in my first period class on my first day of teaching.

When students came in that very first morning of my career, I asked them to fill out an information sheet. They had to write down their name, grade, age, hobbies, interests, and career aspirations. The last question on the sheet said: “Is there anything else you want me to know about you?”

One of my students wrote, “I am dyslexic.”

I remember reading the sheet at the kitchen table of the house I rented with two other teachers, also just 22 years old. The house was charming, but falling apart, dangerously so: when you plugged in the toaster, the washing machine shorted out; we often went days without water. It felt appropriate though, like a reflection of myself: put together on the outside, but on the inside, completely confused.

Okay, I told myself, I’m prepared for this. They taught me about this in my training program. This student needs help. I just have to…help her.

The question was, how?

I tried speaking to the counsellor, the vice principal, the teachers on my hall. No one seemed to know what to do. Finally, out of desperation more than anything else, I decided to do what I should’ve done in the first place: ask the student herself.

After what felt like hours of stuttering through telling her I had read her sheet and appreciated how honest she had been and telling her that I wanted to support her and on and on and on, she finally said, “Miss, I need a blue overlay. Can you ask the office for me?”

The next day, I found the resource person, gave the young woman’s name, and was handed an overlay. When I gave the overlay to the student in the class, she started using it immediately.

Really? It was that easy? It couldn’t be, I told myself. There had to be some catch.

I decided to do what I should’ve done in the first place: ask the student herself.

But there wasn’t. For this student, it was that simple.

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There are many things I don’t remember about this student. I’ve forgotten her name. I only have a vague idea of what she looked like - chubby, hair always in a ponytail, just like all the other girls in my class.

There are two things I remember clearly, though: how well she did in my class, and how grateful she was.

That simple act of asking her what she needed and getting it for her was all it took to get her undivided loyalty. Every year, on the first day of school, she came to my room to say hello and gave me her class photo. She gave me Christmas cards and remembered my birthday. Once I even heard her standing up for me in the hallway when some other students were criticizing me for being too strict.

“At least Ms Subramanian cares,” she said.

This incident taught me lessons I carried with me for the rest of my time in the classroom, and, really for the rest of my life: that the smallest, easiest gestures can mean the most. That approaching people with empathy opens all kinds of doors. That asking what someone needs is the quickest way to help them succeed.

Fourteen years later, I’ve met countless students with learning disabilities, almost all of whom have problems more severe than this first student. Two years ago, for example, I was working with a young woman who lived in a Bangalore slum who I am fairly sure has dysgraphia. By the time I found someone to get her tested, she and her family had left the area because their home had been demolished. They left no phone number, and I was never able to track her down.

Not every story is a success story. But in truth, students don’t really need much success. What they need is someone to believe that they can succeed. That they, like any other student, are capable of so much more than they believe themselves to be.

This is why your job, as a teacher, is so vitally important. One small kindness can change a child’s life. You have that power. What another professional can say that?

I hope that after you attend this workshop that you feel this power, this importance. I hope that you are inspired. Most of all, I hope you meet students who let you change their lives - and that you let your students change yours.

Mathangi Subramanian
Writer / Educator / Feminist
Tweet her at https://twitter.com/Mathangisub
Buy her book: Dear Mrs. Naidu here

 
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